Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

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“Are you done with the book yet?”

In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert talks about the nature of the Balinese people. They must know where they are, and where you, are at all times – physically and spiritually. Most important, she says, is the question, “Are you married yet?” In America, this is considered a rude question. In Bali, however. . . well, as Liz puts it, “They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes.” And if you’re not married, the correct answer is “not yet.” “This is a polite way of saying, ‘No,’ while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was at the coffee shop writing, and a friend stopped by. Her first question was, “Are you done with the book yet?”

Any number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, the first one being why did I tell her I was writing a book? I knew she wanted me to say yes. I knew this. And yet, being me, I had to be truthful “Not yet!” I said, smiling. (See? A polite way of saying NO, while indicating that I am working on getting that done just as soon as I can.)

“Well, how much longer?” In her eyes, I could see the question bordering on accusation. You’ve been working on this all summer! How long does it take to write a book? 

“I don’t know. Not long,” I said cheerfully, and she went back to the friends she’d come with, and I went back to my characters.

But it left me pondering a few things. Number one:  books, my friend, are never done. Ask any author. You just sort of reach a point where you stare at it and say, “Screw it.” And then you start sending out the query letters. (And even then, as we all know, it’s STILL not done. Edits and rewrites shall abound.)

Number two:  How long do people think it takes us to write a book? Yes, there are prolific writers like Barbara Cartland and Stephen King who can put fingers to keyboard and type nonstop for hours, until it’s done. The rest of us mere mortals, not so much. The phrase “we’ll get there when we get there!” comes to mind.

And number three:  why must people ask it precisely like that?! Bloody hell, we just don’t know how long it’s going to take!

If you’ve ever encountered a scene like this, with friends, coworkers, family, or complete strangers (yes, those people who think nothing of putting their hands on the stomachs of pregnant women also feel no shame in asking about your deadlines), I feel for you. Been there, done that! I think most writers have been. In fact, I’ve been biting my tongue the last week or so, because a local author’s been at the same coffee shop typing away madly. I know she’s trying to get some writing done before school starts, and I keep wanting to stop by and just commiserate with her – but being a fellow writer, I can’t make myself interrupt her flow. I know she has small children and like me, those are her precious stolen moments with her characters.

The truth is this:  I don’t know how long these rewrites will take. I know what I set out to do daily. I hope I get it done. I’m working in small chunks of writing, stuffed into small windows of time. Those long stretches of uninterrupted writing time are a MYTH, people. A MYTH! Most writers, like me, steal away to a local haunt, order a latte, and if we get a solid hour or two of work done before Real Life comes knocking, we’re lucky. I have to walk in there knowing exactly what I want to accomplish in that time frame, and do my best to make it happen. Even during summers, my life is complicated – running a business, dealing with umpteen animals, errands to run, and, you know, I’d also like to sort of enjoy my summer, too – so I have to squeeze my writing into small bites.

But you know what? Those small chunks of time are working well for me. For starters, they work well with my inability to sit still and do one thing for hours on end. If I can focus for just an hour or so on this one scene, or this transitional between scenes, or these changes, I can get them done and it feels good. I have my to-do list of items, and some days I cross things off and some days I add to it, and some days I do both. Some days, when I go for my walk in the morning, I have an epiphany that makes me sit right down and draft out something; other days, I struggle to put three paragraphs on a page.

In short – I’m writing.

So to answer my friend – No. The book isn’t done yet. But it is getting there. It gets closer every day.

And it feels good, this round of rewrites. Not perfect, not yet; but good.

 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

Osage_murders_9

Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.

 

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

Writers Who Write Things Down: Making To-Do Lists for Novels

Writing is a lonely, frustrating thing.

Wow. Big surprise there. I hear you. (I can also hear you rolling your eyes, thanks.) But it’s true. No one ‘gets’ what you’re doing, sitting at your laptop day after day. People see you sitting at the coffee shop and think you’re not doing anything, so they sit down to chat with you – and unless you want to be really rude, you feel like you kind of have to let them. Which kills whatever momentum you’d gotten going.

It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to stay on task. It’s hard to pound the keyboard, not knowing if what’s going to come out today is pure gold, a dribble of cold pudding, or something in between. Generally, it’s something in between. If you’re lucky.

So how can we stay motivated?

A few years ago, an agent requested the full of one of my novels. It had a ton of issues, and I was frantic, unsure how long I could put her off, or how long it would take to fix the problems. Because there were a lot of problems! It was my first query, my first submission, and I was petrified I’d screw it up.

So I printed a fresh copy of the manuscript, sat down with a pen and a fresh stack of Post-It Notes, and started. I was overwhelmed and had no starting place – so I had to create one. I wasn’t revising at that point. I was making a to-do list. 

It’s pretty simple. I’m a very visual person, and I tend to forget things if I don’t write them down because I’m also a little scatter-brained. So every single page of that manuscript was gone over. Notes on everything were made. Then I typed up all those notes into a master to-do list for completing the revisions. These notes ran the gamut from character development and motivation, to dialogue, to scenes that could be cut or needed to be moved. This process took about a weekend.

Then, it was time to get to work. As I completed one item on the list, I crossed it off. And in far less time than I thought – just about two weeks – I was done with all the changes I wanted to make.

6124050I think this is reflected in one of my favorite self-help books, Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser. The gist of this little book is that if we want to make things happen in our lives, the best way to do it is to announce our intentions – by writing them down. The act of writing our goals, dreams, and plans sends a signal to the subconscious that this is something to Pay Attention To. She has several examples in the book of people who did precisely this – whether it’s writing letters to as-yet unborn children to attract the kind of soul they want in their child, to writing and burning things we want to forget about, to Jim Carrey’s famous $10 million check he wrote to himself as an out-of-work entertainer.

Obviously, the act of writing them down doesn’t actually make them happen. I want to win the lottery, and I can write that as much as I want, but if I don’t actually go buy the ticket, it’s not going to happen. It’s the same thing with my to-do lists. I want to finish this novel or that one. What is it I need to do? 

The answer is a to-do list.

Lists keep me focused and grounded. I may not have all the answers right now, but that’s okay; my subconscious will be working on it. (Haven’t you ever had that moment where suddenly, all the problems you were having with a manuscript evaporate and the answer Reveals Itself Magically? It’s awwwe-some!)

For Nicky, my to-do list is all over the place – here’s a sample of what it includes:

  • p. 10 – move up about the post office from page 46.
  • p. 5 – do we need to explain that bodies weren’t shipped home during World War I?
  • p 27 – Simon teaches him to fight – need to put that scene here.
  • How much were property taxes in the 1920s? Need to know.
  • p. 35 – there’s no tension here! No questions being asked. What can we do about that?
  • Research court-martial procedures. Maybe change it so that Daniel isn’t a CO, but part of the mechanics’ corps?
  • What the bleep happened to the Model T’s top, and why don’t they fix it???? ?
  • p. 105 – um, why is the Sheriff at Sally’s? It’s a great scene, but what do we learn from it? How does it further the story? Make in integral, or ditch it.

It has also included things like:  finding maps of the area c. 1924, how fast a Cadillac V-8 can really go and could you build a turbo charger in the 1920s (the answer is yes, by the way), and many others. As something gets accomplished, it gets crossed off the list.

To-do lists are great for several reasons. The most obvious is that it gives you something concrete to work on. If you’re not feeling at all creative or energized today, work on those mechanical issues. Move that scene over there. Maybe write a new intro so it flows better. And you know what? It might just be that you start to get energized at that point. And then you can move on and maybe tackle something else, like dialogue that needs fixed or a question of motivation on page 81.

But another reason is that it keeps the novel in the forefront of your mind – or at least, in your subconscious. The very act of writing that list means you’re focused and serious. It sends a signal to the universe that you want to finish this. Badly! And it sends a signal to your characters that I’m here and I’m not giving up on you. And – maybe most importantly – it sends a signal to yourself. You’ll find yourself mulling over small things. In the middle of an afternoon meeting, you’ll find yourself jotting down a new transition for between scenes, one that’s brilliant and perfect. On your morning walk, you’ll suddenly have the solution to a character’s problem pop into your mind. You’ll find that tackling the mechanical issues pave the way for you to focus on the ones that require your creativity and focus.

Writing can be lonely, yes. And frustrating. But if you’re like me, the list can help it be a little less frustrating.

 

A link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can get Write It Down, Make It Happen:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/write-it-down-make-it-happen-klauser-henriette-anne/1121692444?ean=9780684850023

Here’s a link to a similar post from 2015:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/falling-back-in-love-with-your-manuscript/

And a clip from Oprah, where Jim Carrey tells the story of the check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXwVD2ncqfE

“Learn to Love the Pauses” – Poetry for Prose Writers

“Read your work aloud.” How many times have we all heard that? Raise your hands. Yeah, you in the back, too. I see you!

Now. How many of us actually practice it? Ah. I see the hands going down. I see you looking at your desk. Some of you silently shaking your heads.

And why is that? Truly, I don’t know, because I do it all the time.

At the OWFI conference this year, there was a workshop on “Prose and Poetry,” which frankly, I hadn’t thought I’d go to because another session looked better. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – that session was cancelled and the stand-in presenter was . . . yeah. No. So I snuck out and went to the poetry workshop instead.

Truthfully, I don’t read much poetry. Too many flashbacks to “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Wreck of the Hesperus” and “The Wasteland.” Poetry, I was given to understand in middle school and high school, had rules. First, it had to rhyme. It had to have a deeper meaning. It had to Be About Something Very Important. When we wrote poetry in Literature, we had to follow these rules. Do you know how bloody hard that is? Let me tell you. It’s bloody hard!

And when I started taking creative writing classes in college, my poems were always trashed because they weren’t About Something, and they didn’t Rhyme, and – OMG – sometimes they even told a story. Try as I might to write something that the teacher and other students considered Poetry with a capital P, I just couldn’t do it.

Which is why I hadn’t wanted to attend this workshop to begin with. Poetry is not fun for me.

But the session was fantastic.

The presenter, Nathan Brown, is a poet. In fact, he was the 2013/14 Oklahoma Poet Laureate. He started to use poetry as a coping mechanism for dealing with personal tragedies, then got into the habit of writing a poem a day. Yes. I said a poem a day. Sometimes his friends give him challenges – write a poem a day for a month about X or Y, or use this word in all your poems for the next year, etc. He also takes things from his daily life – sometimes entire conversations – and uses them as inspiration.

What Nathan wanted to do in this workshop was show us prose writers that poetry can have a place in our repertoire. Doesn’t mean we have to try to become the next Poet Laureate of the United States (yeah, like that’s going to get funded next year), it just means that we can learn to use it to our advantage.

I know. I hear you. I occasionally write short little funny poems from the viewpoints of my cats (and once, my Mini Cooper), and if it takes me more than 3 minutes to write one, it’s taking too long. Here’s an example:

I tell Mum
that the penalty for waking me up
is to rub my tummy.
And to watch me stretch,
shut my eyes
smile
purr.
Curl my paws around her hand
Rub my head against her arm
And fall asleep again.

At the start of the workshop, Nathan looked at us – we all looked equally afraid and befuddled – and said, “Okay. How many of you write poetry?”

A few hands went up.

“How many of you write free verse poetry?”

Most of the hands went down.

He smiled. “Everyone thinks poetry has to rhyme. But free verse poetry lets us explore and play. Take, for example, the sentence ‘You are not going to believe what he did next!’ What words do you want to emphasize? How do you hear it in your head? Can you write it like that?”

And then, he typed it out:

You

are not 

going to be-

lieve 

what he did

next! 

Maybe you didn’t think about it that way. Maybe yours was more like

You are 

not

going to 

BELIEVE 

what he 

did next! 

Can you see and – more importantly – hear the difference? Read it out loud. Go on. Don’t just read it silently. Read it out loud! There! Now do you hear the difference? Does one sound better than the other? Line breaks become hesitations and pauses (“Learn to love the pauses!” Nathan told us). Capitalized words become shouted.

Why is that? Because we read it out loud. One of the reasons I so hated poetry when in middle school and high school is because we read it silently. It’s not meant for that! Here’s an example. The first link is to the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. And then there’s a short video of her reading her poem.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46446

Listen to it. Hear the power of her voice, the emphases on certain words, the line breaks. Does it make you stop and reread the poem? Will you ever see those words the same way again, having heard them?

And this, Nathan argued, is why prose writers should write poetry.

But there’s another reason, going back to my opening paragraphs:  the fact that as writers, we need to be reading our work aloud. He asked if any of us did that, and only a few of us raised our hands.

A recent study found that when we read silently – whether it’s a book, a poem, whatever – the muscles and ligaments in our throat and jaw try to ‘speak’ microscopically. We’re not even aware of it. But this is in part why awkward prose tends to trip us up, why we notice it – even when we’re reading silently. So, we really do need to read our work aloud!

Poetry can help with that. I’m not saying you need to dust off your old Lit book. Poetry, as I’ve discovered in the last few years, doesn’t need to rhyme. It doesn’t need to be about Big Issues. It can be inspired by everyday things. I mean, my kitties write them, for crying out loud! How literary can they be? 🙂

And since poetry should be read aloud . . . it will get you in the habit of doing that, too. 🙂

https://www.brownlines.com/

https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2012/september/karma-crisis-nathan-brown

http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/01/nathan-l-brown-self-publishing-poet-laureate/

Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html